Life in Mexico, by Frances Calderon de la Barca

Letter the Fifteenth

Letter from the Archbishop–Visit to the “Encarnacian” — Reception — Description — The Novices — Convent-supper — Picturesque Scene — Sonata on the Organ — Attempt at Robbery — Alarms of the Household — Visit to San Agustin — Anonymous Letter — The Virgin de los Remedios — Visit to the Chapel — The Padre — The Image — Anecdote of the large Pearl-A Mine.

The Archbishop has not only granted me permission to visit the convents, but permits me to take two ladies along with me, of which I have been informed by the Minister, Señor C——o, in a very amiable note just received, enclosing one from Señor Posada, which I translate for your edification.

To His Excellency, Señor Don J. de D. C——o.

April 24th, 1842.

My dear Friend and Companion:

The Abbess and Nuns of the Convent of the Encarnación are now prepared to receive the visit of our three pilgrims, next Sunday, at half-past four in the afternoon, and should that day not suit them, let them mention what day will be convenient.

Afterwards we shall arrange their visit to the Concepción, Ensenanza Antigua, and Jesús María, which are the best, and I shall let you know, and we shall agree upon the days and hours most suitable. I remain your affectionate friend and Capellan,

MANUEL POSADA.

Accordingly, on Sunday afternoon, we drove to the Encarnación, the most splendid and richest convent in Mexico, excepting perhaps la Concepción. If it were in any other country, I might mention the surpassing beauty of the evening, but as except in the rainy season, which has not yet begun, the evenings are always beautiful, the weather leaves no room for description. The sky always blue, the air always soft, the flowers always blossoming, the birds always singing; Thomson never could have written his “Seasons” here. We descended at the convent gate, were admitted by the portress, and received by several nuns, their faces closely covered with a double crape veil. We were then led into a spacious hall, hung with handsome lustres, and adorned with various Virgins and Saints magnificently dressed; and here the eldest, a very dignified old lady, lifted her veil, the others following her example, and introduced herself as the Madre Vicaria; bringing us many excuses from the old abbess, who having an inflammation in her eyes, was confined to her cell. She and another reverend mother, and a group of elderly dames, tall, thin, and stately, then proceeded to inform us, that the archbishop had, in person, given orders for our reception, and that they were prepared to show us the whole establishment.

The dress is a long robe of very fine white casimere, a thick black crape veil, and long rosary. The dress of the novices is the same, only that the veil is white. For the first half-hour or so, I fancied, that along with their politeness, was mingled a good deal of restraint, caused perhaps by the presence of a foreigner, and especially of an Englishwoman. My companions they knew well; the Señorita having even passed some months there. However this may have been, the feeling seemed gradually to wear away. Kindness or curiosity triumphed; their questions became unceasing; and before the visit was concluded, I was addressed as “mi vida” (my life), by the whole establishment. Where was I born? Where had I lived? What convents had I seen? Which did I prefer, the convents in France, or those in Mexico? Which were largest? Which had the best garden? etc., etc. Fortunately, I could, with truth, give the preference to their convent, as to spaciousness and magnificence, over any I ever saw.

The Mexican style of building is peculiarly advantageous for recluses; the great galleries and courts affording them a constant supply of fresh air, while the fountains sound so cheerfully, and the garden in this climate of perpetual spring affords them such a constant source of enjoyment all the year round, that one pities their secluded state much less here than in any other country.

This convent is in fact a palace. The garden, into which they led us first, is kept in good order, with its stone walks, stone benches, and an ever-playing and sparkling fountain. The trees were bending with fruit, and they pulled quantities of the most beautiful flowers for us; sweet-peas and roses, with which all gardens here abound, carnations, jasmine, and heliotrope. It was a pretty picture to see them wandering about, or standing in groups in this high-walled garden, while the sun was setting behind the hills, and the noise of the city was completely excluded, everything breathing repose and contentment. Most of the halls in the convent are noble rooms. We visited the whole, from the refectory to the botica, and admired the extreme cleanness of everything, especially of the immense kitchen, which seems hallowed from the approach even of a particle of dust; this circumstance is partly accounted for by the fact that each nun has a servant, and some have two; for this is not one of the strictest orders. The convent is rich; each novice at her entrance pays five thousand dollars into the common stock. There are about thirty nuns and ten novices.

The prevailing sin in a convent generally seems to be pride;

“The pride that apes humility;”

and it is perhaps nearly inseparable from the conventual state. Set apart from the rest of the world, they, from their little world, are too apt to look down with contempt which may be mingled with envy, or modified by pity, but must be unsuited to a true Christian spirit.

The novices were presented to us — poor little entrapped things! who really believe they will be let out at the end of the year if they should grow tired, as if they would ever be permitted to grow tired! The two eldest and most reverend ladies are sisters, thin, tall, and stately, with high noses, and remains of beauty. They have been in the convent since they were eight years old (which is remarkable, as sisters are rarely allowed to profess in the same establishment), and consider La Encarnación as a small piece of heaven upon earth. There were some handsome faces amongst them, and one whose expression and eyes were singularly lovely, but truth to say, these were rather exceptions to the general rule.

Having visited the whole building, and admired one virgin’s blue satin and pearls, and another’s black velvet and diamonds, sleeping holy infants, saints, paintings, shrines, and confessionals, — having even climbed up the Azotea, which commands a magnificent view, we came at length to a large hall, decorated with paintings and furnished with antique high-backed arm-chairs, where a very elegant supper, lighted up and ornamented, greeted our astonished eyes; cakes, chocolate, ices, creams, custards, tarts, jellies, blancmangers, orange and lemonade, and other profane dainties, ornamented with gilt paper cut into little flags, etc. I was placed in a chair that might have served for a pope under a holy family; the Señora ——— and the Señorita ——— on either side. The elder nuns in stately array, occupied the other arm-chairs, and looked like statues carved in stone. A young girl, a sort of pensionnaire, brought in a little harp without pedals, and while we discussed cakes and ices, sung different ballads with a good deal of taste. The elder nuns helped us to everything, but tasted nothing themselves. The younger nuns and the novices were grouped upon a mat a la Turque, and a more picturesque scene altogether one could scarcely see.

The young novices in their white robes, white veils, and black eyes, the severe and dignified madres with their long dresses and mournful-looking black veils and rosaries, the veiled figures occasionally flitting along the corridor; — ourselves in contrast, with our worldly dresses and coloured ribbons; and the great hall lighted by one immense lamp that hung from the ceiling — I felt transported three centuries back, and half afraid that the whole would flit away, and prove a mere vision, a waking dream.

A gossiping old nun, who hospitably filled my plate with everything, gave me the enclosed flag cut in gilt paper, which, together with her custards and jellies, looked less unreal. They asked many questions in regard to Spanish affairs, and were not to be consoled for the defeat of Don Carlos, which they feared would be an end of the true religion in Spain.

Attempt at Robbery

After supper we proceeded upstairs to the choir (where the nuns attend public worship, and which looks down upon the handsome convent church) to try the organ. I was set down to a Sonata of Mozart’s, the servants blowing the bellows. It seems to me that I made more noise than music, for the organ is very old, perhaps as old as the convent, which dates three centuries back. However, the nuns were pleased, and after they had sung a hymn, we returned below. I was rather sorry to leave them, and I felt as if I could have passed some time there very contentedly; but it was near nine o’clock, and we were obliged to take our departure; so having been embraced very cordially by the whole community, we left the hospitable walls of the Encarnación.

28th. — Last evening we were sitting at home very quietly about ten o’clock, C——n, Monsieur de ——— of the ——— Legation, and I, when A—— rushed into the room all dishevelled. “Come quickly, sir! Robbers are breaking open the kitchen-door!” A succession of feminine shrieks in the distance, added effect to her words. C——n jumped up, ran for his pistols, gave one to Monsieur de ——— called up the soldiers, but no robbers appeared. The kitchen-door was indeed open, and the trembling galopina attested, that being in the kitchen alone, dimly lighted by one small lamp, three men, all armed, had entered, and had rushed out again on hearing her give the alarm. We somewhat doubted her assertions, but the next morning found that the men had in fact escaped by the Azotea, a great assistance to all Mexican depredators. At the end of this row of houses the people ran out and fired upon them, but without effect. The house of the old Countess of S—— F—— had been broken into, her porter wounded, report says killed, and her plate carried off. In the mean time our soldiers watch in the kitchen, a pair of loaded pistols adorn the table, a double-barrelled gun stands in the corner, and a bull-dog growls in the gallery. This little passing visit to us was probably caused by the arrival of some large boxes from London, especially of a very fine harp and piano, both Erard’s, which I had the pleasure of seeing unpacked this morning, and which, in spite of jolting and bad roads, have arrived in perfect condition. . . .

Thus far I had written, it being now the evening, and I sitting alone, when a succession of shrieks arose, even more awful than those which alarmed us last night. At the same time the old galopina, her daughter, and a French girl who lives here, rushed shouting along the gallery; not a word they said comprehensible, but something concerning “a robber in black, with men at his back, who had burst open the door.” At the noise the whole household had assembled. One ran this way, one ran that. A little French teinturier, who it appeared had been paying the maids a polite visit, seized the loaded gun; the footman took a pistol and hid himself behind the porter; A—— like a second Joan of Arc, appeared, with a rusty sabre; the soldiers rushed up with their bayonets; the coachman stood aloof with nothing; the porter led up the rear, holding a large dog by the collar; but no robber appears; and the girls are all sobbing and crying because we doubt their having seen one. Galopina the younger shedding tears in torrents, swears to the man. Galopina the elder, enveloped in her reboso, swears to any number of men; and the recamerera has cried herself into a fit between fear and indignation.

Such is the agreeable state of things about nine o’clock this evening, for one real attempt to enter the house, invariably gives rise to a thousand imaginary attacks and fanciful alarms. . . .

After many attempts at walking, I have very nearly abandoned it, but take a great deal of exercise both on horseback and in the carriage; which last, on account of the ill-paved condition of the streets, affords rather more exercise than the former. I drove out this morning in an open carriage with the Señorita E—— to her country-house at San Agustin, the gambling emporium. But the famous annual fête does not take place till Whitsunday, and the pretty country villas there are at present abandoned. We walked in the garden till the sun became insupportable. The fragrance of the roses and jasmine was almost overpowering. There are trees of millefleur roses; heliotrope and honeysuckle cover every pillar, and yellow jasmine trails over everything. . . .

Found on my return an anonymous letter, begging me to “beware of my cook!” and signed Fernandez. Having shown it to some gentlemen who dined here, one thought it might be a plan of the robbers to get rid of the cook, whom they considered in their way; another, with more probability, that it was merely a plan of the attentive Señor Fernandez to get the cook’s place for himself.

We went lately to pay a visit to the celebrated Virgen de los Remedies, the Gachupina, the Spanish patroness, and rival of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This Virgin was brought over by Cortes, and when he displaced the Indian idols in the great Temple of Mexico, caused them to be broken in pieces, and the sanctuary to be purified, he solemnly placed there a crucifix and this image of the Virgin; then kneeling before it, gave solemn thanks to Heaven, which had permitted him thus to adore the Most High in a place so long profaned by the most cruel idolatries.

It is said that this image was brought to Mexico by a soldier of Cortes’s army called Villafuerte, and that the day succeeding the terrible Noche Triste, it was concealed by him in the place where it was afterwards discovered. At all events, the image disappeared, and nothing further was known of it until, on the top of a barren and treeless mountain, in the heart of a large maguey, she was found by a fortunate Indian. Her restoration was joyfully hailed by the Spaniards. A church was erected on the spot. A priest was appointed to take charge of the miraculous image. Her fame spread abroad. Gifts of immense value were brought to her shrine. A treasurer was appointed to take care of her jewels; a camarista to superintend her rich wardrobe. No rich dowager died in peace until she had bequeathed to Our Lady of Los Remedios her largest diamond, or her richest pearl. In seasons of drought she is brought in from her dwelling in the mountain, and carried in procession through the streets. The viceroy himself on foot used to lead the holy train. One of the highest rank drives the chariot in which she is seated. In succession she visits the principal convents, and as she is carried through the cloistered precincts, the nuns are ranged on their knees in humble adoration. Plentiful rains immediately follow her arrival. ——— who accompanied us, has on several occasions filled the office of her coachman, by which means he has seen the interior of most of the convents in Mexico. It is true that there came a time when the famous curate Hidalgo, the prime mover of the Revolution, having taken as his standard an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a rivalry arose between her and the Spanish Virgin; and Hidalgo having been defeated and forced to fly, the image of the Virgen de los Remedios was conducted to Mexico dressed as a general, and invoked as the patroness of Spain. Later still, the Virgin herself was denounced as a Gachupina! her general’s sash boldly torn from her by the valiant General ——— who also signed her passport, with an order for her to leave the republic. However, she was again restored to her honours, and still retains her treasurers, her camarista, and sanctum sanctorum.

Being desirous of seeing this celebrated image, we set off one fine afternoon in a carriage of ——— ‘s, drawn by six unbroken horses, accompanied by him and his lady, and performed four leagues of bad road in an incredibly short space of time. The horses themselves were in an evident state of astonishment, for after kicking and plunging, and, as they imagined, running away, they found themselves driven much faster than they had the slightest intention of going: so after a little while they acknowledged, in ——— ‘s capital coachman, une main de maître.

The mountain is barren and lonely, but the view from its summit is beautiful, commanding the whole plain. The church is old and not very remarkable, yet a picturesque object, as it stands in its gay solitariness, with one or two trees beside it, of which one without leaves was entirely covered with the most brilliant scarlet flowers. Señor ——— having been the Virgin’s coachman, the Señora ——— being the daughter of her camarista, and C——n the Minister from the land of her predilection, we were not astonished at the distinguished reception which we met with from the reverend padre, the guardian of the mountain. The church within is handsome; and above the altar is a copy of the original Virgin. After we had remained there a little while, we were admitted into the Sanctum, where the identical Virgin of Cortes, with a large silver maguey, occupies her splendid shrine. The priest retired and put on his robes, and then returning, and all kneeling before the altar, he recited the credo. This over, he mounted the steps, and opening the shrine where the Virgin was encased, knelt down and removed her in his arms. He then presented her to each of us in succession, every one kissing the hem of her satin robe. She was afterwards replaced with the same ceremony.

The image is a wooden doll about a foot high, holding in its arms an infant Jesús, both faces evidently carved with a rude penknife; two holes for the eyes and another for the mouth. This doll was dressed in blue satin and pearls with a crown upon her head and a quantity of hair fastened on to the crown. No Indian idol could be much uglier. As she has been a good deal scratched and destroyed in the lapse of ages, C——n observed that he was astonished they had not tried to restore her a little. To this the padre replied, that the attempt had been made by several artists, each one of whom had sickened and died. He also mentioned as one of her miracles, that living on a solitary mountain she had never been robbed; but I fear the good padre is somewhat oblivious, as this sacrilege has happened more than once. On one occasion a crowd of léperos being collected, and the image carried round to be kissed, one of them, affecting intense devotion, bit off the large pearl that adorned her dress in front, and before the theft was discovered, he had mingled with the crowd and escaped. When reminded of the circumstance, the padre said it was true, but that the thief was a Frenchman. After taking leave of the Virgin, we visited the padre in his own old house, attached to the church, where his only attendant, as usual among padres, is an old woman.

We then made our way on foot down a steep hill, stopping to admire some noble stone arches, the remains of an aqueduct built by the Spaniards for conveying water from one mountain to the other; and with an Indian for our guide, visited a newly-discovered, though anciently-opened mine, said to be of silver, and which had until lately been covered with rubbish. We groped through it, and found vaults and excavations and a deep pit of water. C——n got some Indians to break off pieces of stone for him, which were put into a sack and sent home for examination. We were so tired of our walk down this steep and mountainous path, that on our return, I mounted a horse with a man’s saddle, belonging to one of the servants, and contrived to keep on, while it climbed up the perpendicular ascent. As this seemed rather a selfish proceeding while the others walked, I invited the Señora ——— to mount also in front; which she did, and the path being almost perpendicular, my head nearly touched the ground, which certainly made the seat not over safe or easy. However, we reached the top of the mountain in safety, though somewhat exhausted with laughing, and were driven home with the speed of a rail-car.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05